Projects for Peace: The Vision of Kathryn W. Davis

"My challenge to you is to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war."


When Ellen Johnson was seven years old, her parents took her to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany. Dachau was the first of the Nazi concentration camps opened in Germany, and Ellen’s parents explained to her what happened there in the 1930s and ’40s. She calls the experience a “foundational moment” in her life.

A few years later, Ellen’s fifth-grade teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, was attempting to explain the Holocaust during a history lesson. Her teacher said the primary victims of the Holocaust were “dark-complected people.” Over time, Ellen came to realize this was a profoundly distorted interpretation of Jewish persecution during World War II. And she began to understand how misguided and uninformed teaching can shape beliefs and perceptions.

Today, Ellen is a master’s degree candidate in Holocaust and genocide studies at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and a graduate assistant in both Kean’s Human Rights Institute and its Holocaust Resource Center. In conjunction with the state’s mandate that the Holocaust be taught in all New Jersey public schools, Ellen works to educate communities, teachers, and students about human rights and genocide awareness and prevention.

“I am continually impressed by New Jersey’s commitment to genocide education in public schools,” says Ellen. “By comparison, the public education system in Kentucky, and Appalachia as a whole, lacks course requirements about human rights and prejudice reduction,” says Ellen. “Without these requirements, the schools are underutilized in the exploration of others’ beliefs, cultures, and societies. And without proper awareness of the value of diversity, Kentucky students are less prepared to encounter belief systems different from their own.”

Ellen eventually plans to return to Kentucky to advocate for education mandates on the Holocaust in order to teach young people about the extreme consequences of unchallenged prejudice. A summer at Middlebury’s German School will bring her closer to her goal. “The German education model on the Holocaust is exemplary,” says Ellen. Language fluency will enable Ellen to communicate directly with Holocaust educators in Germany to better understand effective teaching strategies and challenges. Her linguistic gains will also allow her to conduct archival research as she pursues doctoral study in the history of the Holocaust.

When asked what motivates her studies and work, Ellen is quick to recall the time a New Jersey senator said to her, “What more is there to learn about the Holocaust?”

“I was shocked,” she says. “There is so much left to learn. We have to keep asking why.”